Devarim 2022: Maapilim: Impulsivity & Teshuva. Insights from the Maapilim story

Rabbi Nachi Friedman

             I imagine I am not the only person who does this: Whenever I have a dentist appointment I brush my teeth multiple times before leaving the house. While my oral hygiene is not in question, I still ensure to do one last intense cleaning before seeing the dentist. While helpful that my teeth get a nice cleaning,  I know it doesn’t make up for the many times I was not as careful or intense about cleaning. Yet, I still do this despite knowing it isn’t helpful. Colloquially, this is known as a concept called “Too little too late”.  

             This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, begins the fifth book of the Torah where Moshe Rabeinu addresses the nation before he passes away. Throughout the Torah portion, Moshe recaps many events from the past to warn and extract lessons for the nation entering Israel. One story that is retold this week is the unfortunate decision and actions of a group of individuals called the Maapilim. On the heels of the spies, the Maapilim decide to storm into Israel and begin conquering the land. Despite G-d’s warning that they will not be successful, they proceed with their plan and are defeated immediately. This group captures the meaning of too little too late. See Devarim 1:41-44. (The name Maapilim comes from the description in the text of Bamidbar 14:44)

             This story is slightly troubling. What did they do wrong? Their motivation and intention appear to be noble and altruistic. They appear to be fighting for G-d’s promised land and for G-d’s mission of having the Jewish nation conquer the land. Why were they punished so harshly? Devarim 1:44 describes their demise as the enemies were like a swarm of bees striking them immediately. A very harsh and crushing defeat. Secondly, do we not believe in Teshuva (repentance)? Why did G-d completely deny this group that openly recognized their sins and requested to rekindle their connection with G-d!?

             There are three main approaches as to the sin of the Maapilim: Disobedience of authority, incomplete teshuva, and impulsivity. Sefer Minchas Elazer writes while the Maapilim’s intentions may have been noble, their actions disobeyed G-d’s orders. Hashem instructed them Devarim 1:42 לֹ֤א תַֽעֲלוּ֙ וְלֹא־תִלָּ֣חֲמ֔וּ כִּ֥י אֵינֶ֖נִּי בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם Do not go up and do not battle with them as I (Hashem) am not with you.  Their ascent to Israel was in direct violation of G-d’s words and deserving of punishment.

 Sefer Akeidas Yitzchak (77:1) writes that their repentance was flawed as they were externally motivated to repent. This teshuva was therefore incomplete as they lacked genuine repentance. Sefer Akeidas Yitzchak adds that they merely feared the decree and did not desire to become closer to Hashem in their hearts. Rav Dovid Tzi Hoffman similarly writes that the goal of teshuvah is to realign and make the individual closer to Hashem. The Maapilim did the opposite, their action violated G-d’s will and did not bring them closer.

Targum Yerushalmi translates maapilim as rash/impulsive. Sforno in his commentary on the Torah explains that their attempt to go to Israel after their attempted teshuva was impulsive as Hashem did not accept their teshuva due to the massive disrespect that occurred at the incident of the spies. Their actions would have been welcomed before the sin of the spies, after this incident occurred it was “too little too late”. 

While it makes sense in our relationships to engage with others in this way, it is hard to view G-d as holding a grudge against His people. Humans hold grudges and need time to heal. In our interpersonal relationships, we need time to debrief, isolate and readjust before rekindling relationships. Is this how Hashem works as well? 

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in his book Revival & Renewal states that teshuva is not just an opportunity to amend for one’s sins, Teshuva is the chance to redress the balance. Teshuva allows us to take off the waste and not only neutralize it but energize it; even transform it into a positive force. When we sin and perform Teshuva, we don’t instantly rewind the clock to a time before the sin, but rather utilize the lessons from the sinning experience and channel positivity and growth through the teshuva process. This is a lesson the Maapilim missed. They believed just saying sorry would erase the spies incident and allow them to become successful. 

We will read this Saturday night in Megilas Eicha 5:21- הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ ה’ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ ונשובה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם return us Hashem to You and renew us like the days of old. Rabbi Rob Sheinburg writes that Kedem isn’t the days of old, but rather is a name of a place. Kedem in Genesis 3:24 is the land that Adam and Chava were exiled to after their sin in Gan Eden (Bashevkin, 2019). When we recite this verse multiple times on Saturday night we are not just asking Hashem to transport us back to a time before the sin, but to give us the trajectory and path to perform successful and full Teshuva. Please allow us to be on a “journey” towards repentance and growth to fulfill proper and complete Teshuva.

Wishing everyone an easy and meaningful fast. We will daven Maariv followed by Eicha and Kinnos at 9:45pm. Shabbat Shalom and have a safe “journey”

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